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The NWHL Bubble: What Went Wrong?

@CTWHALE_NWHL

In the end, there were no miracles on the ice this go-around in Lake Placid, as the NWHL was forced to suspend its season one day before the Isobel Cup semifinals were set to begin. Derailed by a multi-team COVID outbreak, the league was set to make history by airing women’s hockey games on a major cable network for the first time. Instead, everyone went home.

Not only was the announcement a disappointment for fans and players, but the available reporting now tells the story of a league that potentially cut corners in preparation for taking on this challenge, putting both teams and the community at risk.

 

WAS THE NWHL BUBBLE REALLY A BUBBLE?

While it’s fair to have thought that the NWHL could pull off a two-week tournament based on the success of other bubble situations (including the NHL), the safety measures in Lake Placid fell quite short of the mark, and a deeper look into the protocols the NWHL followed shows that the procedures put in place did not create a sealed bubble.

Before entering the environment, it is not clear that players and staff were required to quarantine, which meant that even though they had to test negative within 72-hours of leaving for the tournament and were tested again once they arrived, they were vulnerable to bringing in the virus undetected. This risk was further compounded as the games began before athletes were re-tested.

Though commissioner Tyler Tumminia shared during her press conference on February 3rd that PCR and rapid tests were administered “pretty much daily,” that fact, if true, wouldn’t reverse the potential initial exposure from the lack of pre-travel quarantine.

The Athletic has likewise reported that teams potentially stayed in hotels that were open to the public, brought in new players after the tournament bagan (to replace those with COVID), and shared staff among squads. The New York Times has reported that TikTok videos appear to show players hanging out together outside of their rooms while not competing, a violation of NWHL protocols.

A spokesperson for the league previously noted that fines would potentially be levied for breaking protocols. Meanwhile, a team’s official Instagram account showed players out and about in Lake Placid together.

You only have to follow the league’s changes in vocabulary to get a sense as to how the season unfolded. At the start, it was called a “bubble.” The league then started calling their set up a “modified bubble.” By the end, Tumminia was referring to it as a “restricted access environment.” Which brings us to the next big issue.

 

THE NWHL’S COMMUNICATION LEFT TOO MUCH IN THE DARK

All leagues operating within bubble environments have had to contend with HIPAA requirements that protect the identities of those who test positive for COVID-19. That said, the NWHL did little to communicate just how many cases it had, only characterizing players as “unavailable” when they could not play, further fueling speculation and confusion.

The canary in the coal mine arrived when the Riveters were forced to pull out of the tournament on January 28th after passing the allowed threshold of positive cases. When the Connecticut Whale mysteriously withdrew from competition days later on February 1st, it triggered sirens that all was not well in Lake Placid.

The NWHL did not share the extent of the spread in real time — a highly questionable decision when public knowledge about community activity and contact tracing are key to controlling the virus. The league also declined to explain why the Whale were leaving, saying they’d leave it up to the team to speak. Days passed before the Whale broke their silence. For a moment, it looked like their departure might have been left a complete mystery.

As of last week, we now know that six members of the Boston Pride, including coach Paul Mara have also tested positive, with Mara telling The Boston Globe, “If I could take on all the symptoms our organization feels myself, I would… I feel terrible for them. They don’t deserve this.”

Connecticut Whale coach Colton Orr likewise told the New York Times that about two-thirds of his players tested positive.

Regarding the opaque communication surrounding player availability and the number of cases, Tumminia stated, “The reason we chose to say ‘unavailable’ was mostly because of HIPAA policies and rules. That was a defined league policy going into it. I am not allowed to tell you who has COVID. Also, the amount of numbers right now is also something that the league has taken a stance that we weren’t going to talk about. There’s varying degrees of privacy levels and HIPAA levels, and we had agreed with ORDA that we would not disclose that information.”

Protecting players’ rights is one thing. Leaving everyone in the dark is something else entirely.

 

THE NWHL FACED AN ADDITIONAL BURDEN

The NWHL needed to do more than just seal their bubble. Compared to other sports, the league needed to be far more scrupulous in its preparation given the inherent risks posed by the nature of hockey itself.

As epidemiologist Theresa Chapple-McGruder told the New York Times, hockey brings an increased risk of COVID transmission compared to other sports: “You’re indoors in a cold environment, so the virus is going to live longer in the cold, and then all the heavy breathing, close contact — it’s just exactly what you need to spread the virus,” she explained  “It’s similar to what we saw in the meatpacking industry, because cold helps the virus survive. Hockey is no baseball.”

Now, the dangers posed by the league’s safety shortcomings have not only impacted players, coaches, staff, and the surrounding community, but they could also affect the NWHL’s positive momentum. This year, the league took major steps forward in terms of expansion, securing majors sponsors (Discover and Dick’s Sporting Goods), and locking in broadcast deals. Those were all serious accomplishments which now run the risk of being overshadowed by the league’s inability to safely stage a two week season.

 

RECAPPING THE NWHL TOURNAMENT

As for the hockey that was played, the Toronto Six showed everyone what happens when you combine the prowess of Shiann Darkangelo, Mikyla Grant-Mentis, Brooke Boquist, Breanne Wilson-Bennett, Sarah-Eve Coutu Godbout, and Emma Woods. Throughout the series, the Six exhibited a dominant offense and a team with solid puck possession. In the end, the NWHL’s newest team walloped their opponents statistically, outshooting the rest with a 15.83 SOG/GP. Though the Metropolitan Riveters snagged a win against them, Toronto’s showing in Lake Placid proved they are a team with incredible strength and clear staying power.

Boston and Buffalo were initially battling it out for a playoff berth before the Whale withdrew from competition. Entering the season as major underdogs, the Beauts showed up to play in Lake Placid, beating the Pride in their first meeting. The Boston squad then found their footing, answering the Beauts with a 6-0 win in their second match up before snagging another win in the third game against Buffalo.

Minnesota skated away from Lake Placid as the still-reigning Isobel Cup champs, having won the last title game staged in 2019. (The 2020 Championship game was cancelled due to COVID.) The Whitecaps ended the season with all of their players still available for games, which gave them a depth advantage throughout the tournament.

Though Connecticut didn’t get the chance to challenge the reigning champs, they held their own throughout the competition while putting up a valiant effort against powerhouse teams like Toronto. The Whale ended their tournament early with players Tori Howran, Kayla Friesen, and Brooke Wolejko all listed as “unavailable.”

While they were the first team forced to leave the tournament due to COVID exposure, before their season was cut short, the Riveters held the Whitecaps to a single score in what would be New York’s last game and only loss. The addition of Kelly Babstock alongside Rebecca Russo gave the team far more offensive heft than they had for the 2019-20 season.

At this juncture, the season is technically suspended, not cancelled, though it’s unclear how, if, or when it will conclude. As Tumminia noted in her presser, “I have not yet defined what that raising of the Cup is going to look like. I can assure you, we definitely will try to define an ending to season six, and not let it be a cliffhanger.”

 

WHAT COMES NEXT FOR THE NWHL?

Looking back on the season, there are many unanswered questions that the league will be forced to reckon with. No one can control a pandemic, but it’s clear that the NWHL’s operations were not as tight as they needed to be, and the league’s less-than-transparent communication only made the situation worse.

But lost in the ongoing conversation about COVID is one about another issue plaguing the NWHL—racism. While the league has released statements regarding its entanglement with Barstool Sports, it has yet to issue a statement unequivocally supporting Saroya Tinker, whom Barstool Sports founder David Portnoy suggested should be jailed for her criticism of the website.

The Barstool controversy has created collisions between current players, former players, and staff taking opposing sides, threatening the well-being of players and the cohesiveness of the league. Clearly, leadership will be needed to mend the cracks. While the NWHLPA released a fairly poignant note on February 1 regarding the anti-racism work it plans to implement, the league’s surface level tweet about Black History month relied on a hashtag to make its strongest statement. It’s clear that the NWHL’s leadership has significant work to do when it comes to supporting its Black players, enacting meaningful change, and fomenting productive conversations.

 

HOW THE NWHL CAN REBOUND FROM HERE

The good news for the NWHL is that it now has a real opportunity to prove that it’s ready for the big leagues. The full story of the 2021 season won’t be written until the next season begins, when the league will have a chance to prove that it’s learned from it’s “bubble” experience.

The blueprint for success is there, and with over a million viewers tuning in to the league’s Twitch channel this past season, as well as the continued support of their sponsors, the league has the pieces it needs. Now it needs to step forward and show that it’s ready for the spotlight.

Serena Williams is ‘super interested’ in owning a WNBA team

Serena Williams speaks on stage during keynote conversation at 2019 conference in San Jose, California
The tennis icon is all in on women's sports — and the WNBA is right on her heels. (Photo by Marla Aufmuth/WireImage via Getty Images)

Could Serena Williams co-own a WNBA team in the near future? 

Speaking with CNN on Monday, Williams expressed her interest in that potential — as well as the mounting enthusiasm for women’s sports around the world. 

"I think women’s sport is having a moment that it should have always had," Williams said. "I feel like tennis has had its moment. It’s international, and it’s huge, and it’s always gonna be there.

"Now it’s time to lift up other sports — women’s soccer, women’s basketball — there’s so many other sports that women do so great, let’s put it on that platform. Women’s basketball is getting there, and it’s arrived."

When asked if she had any interest in adding a WNBA team to her roster of ownership stakes, the tennis great welcomed the idea. "I absolutely would be," Williams said. "With the right market, I would definitely be super interested in that."

"There is no risk — women’s sport is exciting," Williams added, citing the 2024 NCAA women's tournament's record-breaking viewership as evidence. "People are realizing that it is exciting to watch, so it's an overly safe bet."

Williams may not need to wait long to act on that bet. On Monday, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said that she is "pretty confident" the league will expand to 16 teams — up from its current 12 — by 2028. 

The goal, she said, is to reach 14 by 2026. Oakland's Golden State is already on track to launch the league's 13th team in 2025. The move will mark the WNBA's first new franchise since the Atlanta Dream debuted in 2008.

"It's complex because you need the arena and practice facility and player housing and all the things," Engelbert said at a press conference before Monday's WNBA draft. "You need committed long-term ownership groups, and so the nice thing is we're getting a lot of calls."

Engelbert went on to name a few of the cities behind those calls, saying that the league continues to engage in discussions with Philadelphia, Toronto, Portland, Denver, and Nashville, as well as South Florida.

"These can either take a very long time to negotiate or it can happen pretty quickly if you find the right ownership group with the right arena situation," Engelbert added.

The Commissioner's 16 team goal is not only good news for WNBA fans, it's great news for current and future WNBA players. At 12 teams with just 12 roster spots each, the league is held to a total of 144 players for any given season. An abundance of fresh talent coming up through the NCAA ranks has put pressure on the organization to make room for more worthy competitors, and four additional teams might be just the ticket.

Hellen Obiri claims back-to-back Boston Marathon wins

Hellen Obiri, winner of the women's division of the Boston Marathon, poses with the Boston Marathon trophy
Hellen Obiri, winner of the 2024 Boston Marathon's women's division, poses with her trophy. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Kenyan runner Hellen Obiri won the 128th Boston Marathon on Monday, becoming the first woman to claim back-to-back titles since 2005.

She clocked a total time of 2 hours, 27 minutes, and 37 seconds in a women's division that race organizers described as "historically fast."

"Defending the title was not easy," Obiri said. "Since Boston started, it's only six women [that have repeated]. If you want to be one of them, you have to work extra hard. And I'm so happy because I'm now one of them — I'm now in the history books."

A two-time Olympic silver medalist and two-time 5000m world champion, Obiri is a clear favorite in this summer’s Paris Olympics.

“Last year I was pretty familiar to the marathon, but this year my training was perfect — we trusted everything we were doing,” Obiri said. “When we won last year, of course I was saying I’m going to win this one. Winning is like love. It’s something precious to me.”

Though, she wasn’t without a challenge. Fellow Kenyan Sharon Lokedi finished a mere eight seconds behind Obiri. Edna Kiplagat, who won the 2017 Boston Marathon, completed the podium sweep for Kenya with a third place finish.

Emma Bates, the race's top American finisher, came in 12th.

Obiri wasn't alone in making Boston Marathon history this year. The repeat champ walked away with $150,000 in total prize money allocated from a purse that topped $1 million for the first time ever. 

College rivals Angel Reese, Kamilla Cardoso drafted to the Chicago Sky

Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso competing at the NCAA SEC Conference Tournament Championship
Once rivals, Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso are now teammates. (Jim Dedmon/USA TODAY Sports)

The Chicago Sky made a splash in Monday night’s WNBA draft, taking Kamilla Cardoso and Angel Reese in the first round. 

South Carolina’s Cardoso, who was the 2024 Final Four Most Outstanding Player, went third to the Sky. The day before, the team had swapped picks with the Minnesota Lynx to land the No. 7 pick as well, which they used on Reese, the 2023 Final Four MOP.

Now, the two will team up in Chicago after battling each other in both college and high school

"She’s a great player, and I’m a great player. Nobody's going to get no rebounds on us," Cardoso joked afterwards, while Reese expressed excitement about playing under new Sky head coach Teresa Weatherspoon.

"Being able to be a Black woman and as a head coach, and everything she's done at the NBA level, I just knew everything they were bringing to the table," Reese said of the Sky. "Player development is something that I was looking for and they looked for in me. I'm super excited for this move."

Former NBA star and Chicago Sky co-owner Dwayne Wade welcomed the pair to Chicago.

“The foundation is set,” he wrote.

The Sky have entered re-building mode after winning a WNBA title in 2021. This offseason, they traded franchise cornerstone Kahleah Copper to the Phoenix Mercury for a package that included the No. 3 picked used on Cardoso.

Now, Cardoso and Reese will be looking to jump-start the team's return to contention.

Watch: Iowa star Kate Martin’s draft moment goes viral

Kate Martin poses with Cathy Engelbert after being drafted by the Las Vegas Aces during the 2024 WNBA Draft in New York
2nd-round pick Kate Martin poses with Cathy Engelbert Commissioner of the WNBA at the 2024 draft. (Photo by Catalina Fragoso/NBAE via Getty Images)

Former Iowa captain Kate Martin was in the audience during Monday night’s draft when she was selected 18th overall by the Las Vegas Aces. 

The moment quickly went viral, as Martin was in the crowd to support superstar teammate Caitlin Clark going No. 1 overall, and was not one of the 14 players invited to the draft.

"To be honest, I don't think I'd have the type of career if I don't have a teammate like Kate," Clark said about Martin leading up to the 2024 national championship game. "She's been one that has had my back. She holds me accountable. I hold her accountable. But I think at the same time, me and Kate are wired so similarly that we get each other on a different level."

Martin being drafted marks the first time that Iowa has had two players selected in the same WNBA draft since 1998.

“She's one of the best leaders I've been around," Clark said. "She wants the best for her teammates. She's one of the most selfless people."

Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said Monday that she is “so proud” of her player, “because her dreams came true.”

"She has been such a big part of our program over the last six years,” she said. “Her efforts did not go unnoticed by her peers. I wish Kate all the success with this next step.”

Martin said afterward that she’s “excited for the opportunity” and to showcase her “really good” work ethic. Helping Iowa to back-to-back NCAA title games, Martin finished her college career with 1,299 points, 756 rebounds and 473 assists.

“There are a lot of emotions right now,” Martin said in an interview on ESPN. “I’m really happy to be here. I was here to support Caitlin, but I was hoping to hear my name called. All I wanted was an opportunity and I got it. I’m really excited.”

While Martin was watching from the crowd, her family was watching from back home.

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